Living with Uncertainty in the COVID-19 Era

By Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

As we have been repeatedly reminded, the COVID-19 pandemic is fraught with irreducible uncertainties. (See, for example, excellent articles on the subject by Thompson and Warzel.)  It is clear that our ability to successfully make it through the pandemic will, in large part, depend on how well we understand and are able to work within the constraints posed by these uncertainties. This essay highlights some of the general principles that, over the years, we clarify who is "we"? have found to be most useful in thinking about such issues.

The Distinction between Risk and Uncertainty

Perhaps the best place to start is by understanding the difference between "risk" and "uncertainty," and why uncertainty is so much more troublesome.  Games of chance are risky. While you cannot accurately predict the next card, roll of the the dice, or spin of the wheel, you do know what the possibilities are and the probabilities associated with each possibility. These are what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously referred to these as "known unknowns." 

With risk you can figure the odds and determine whether a particular gambling strategy is likely to pay off over the long term. This is what keeps the casinos in business and why they are so intent on banning card counters and anyone else who figures out how to alter the odds in the player's favor.  This ability to calculate the odds is also what enables insurance companies to build viable business models by calculating actuarial tables that allow them to reliably predict claims and then determine the premiums that they need to charge to cover those claims and still make a profit.

Uncertainty is not like this. With uncertainty, you don't know all of the possible outcomes or the probabilities associated with those outcomes. This is what Rumsfeld referred to as "unknown unknowns." Closely related to uncertainty are non-repeating events where you can't play the same game long enough to have confidence that the odds will eventually balance out. Ultimately, in such situations, \it all boils down to luck—you could win, you could lose, or you could break even.

In the real world, uncertainties and risks tend to intermingle in ways that give a problem like the COVID-19 pandemic elements of both. Under such circumstances, it is important to know as much as possible. To paraphrase Kenneth Boulding, we need to be prepared to be surprised about the future, but we don't have to be dumbfounded.  

As we know from chaos theory, uncertainties tend to fall within identifiable bounds. In the case of COVID-19, we know a lot about the way in which viruses spread and this knowledge gives us many valuable insights that bound our image of possible futures. It is within these bounds that there are lots of uncertainties with which we will have to struggle.  If we fail to take advantage of this knowledge, then we are going to be faced with even greater uncertainties – uncertainties that will make it even harder for us to protect ourselves and those we care about.  

Successfully limiting uncertainty will require us to develop the skills needed to: 1) distinguish trustworthy from untrustworthy information; 2) understand the practical implications of that information; and 3) encourage and support those who produce trustworthy, understandable, and useful information. While we can't expect to be completely successful, we can do much to protect ourselves by taking steps to avoid a few simple cognitive traps.

The Narrowcasting Trap

In today's media environment, consumers can easily choose between a wide range of information sources. Not surprisingly, people tends to tune into those sources that offer a perspective on the news that reinforces their own worldview, and tells them what they want to hear.  This often avoids hard truths, blames others for all of our problems, and avoids asking people to do things that they'd rather not do.  The result is a Balkanized information environment where people believe wildly different (and generally self-serving and dangerously inaccurate) things. And, these differing beliefs are leading to deep conflicts over how best to respond to mutual problems like COVID-19.  We would all be a lot better off if we would look outside of these narrowcast information bubbles and seek out and honestly consider credible views offered from other perspectives.

Contradictory Experts 

There are now so many experts saying so many different and contradictory things that it's easy to conclude that experts don't really know anything, so you might as well go with your gut-level, (and generally self-serving) assessment of the situation. Unfortunately, once you do this, you pretty much lose all of the potential benefits of genuine expertise.  You are much better off if you can filter out all of the noise that is coming from pseudo-experts and focus on those sources that have a well-earned and independently-verified reputation for objectivity.  Here, good place to start is with the Media Bias Chart published by Ad Fontes Media 

Trustworthiness

Unfortunately, some of the widespread disbelief in the objectivity of "experts" is warranted.  It is, for example, common for expert information to be offered from the perspective of "think tanks" that are devoted to making the strongest possible case for policies that advance the interests of their constituents (and not society as a whole).  Expert "flip-flops" also undermine scientific credibility as they did with respect to the use of facemasks as a COVID-19 protection measure by the general public. There are also a disturbing number of cases in which clear conflicts of interest give rise to the reasonable suspicion that the information being offered is in some way tainted. The skepticism that arises from such problems is now deeply ingrained in the political cultures of the left (with the postmodernist belief that anybody's opinion is pretty much as good as anybody else's) and the right (with its general hostility toward expertise). 

To fix this, there is a critical need for more experts to more firmly move beyond their personal, partisan orientation and focus their work on the impartial analysis of social problems and the assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of possible responses. In other words, experts need to do a better job of separating questions of fact from the expert's personal preferences.

It is, of course, not enough to simply do this kind of work. Experts must also do a much better job of earning the public's trust.  To do this, they will need to abandon their all-too-frequent arrogance. "Trust us, you're too dumb to understand" public interactions need to be replaced with mutually-respectful, persuasive discussion that recognizes and builds on "alternative ways of knowing." 

Political Spin

The above principles are intended to help good-faith actors overcome problems that make it hard to distinguish reliable analyses from self-serving political arguments disguised as facts. It is, unfortunately, true that lots of political actors feel compelled to engage in a variety of tricks designed to spin facts in the most positive possible light, often to the point of genuine deception. Such distortions can be relatively minor and involve simple things like cherry picking only those facts that reinforce their views and neglecting or attempting to discredit information that calls their views and question. There are also a variety of data presentation tricks that, while being technically accurate, can convey highly-misleading impressions. 

Sadly, in highly competitive political environments, spinning facts in potentially advantageous ways is one of the most potent weapons in an advocate's arsenal.  While advocates may wish that they didn't have to do these things, they realize that any attempt to abandon them would run into the unilateral disarmament problem—if one side forsakes such techniques and the other continues to use them, the latter would be at a substantial political advantage.  This is the kind of problem that can't be fixed quickly, as it involves changing the political culture of the society.  What can be done over the near-term is to help the public understand these techniques enough to avoid being deceived by them. Here reporters willing to help the public filter through misleading information can play an invaluable role.

Disinformation Warfare

Perhaps the biggest factual problem involves unprincipled and ruthless political actors with kleptocratic ambitions who have an interest in preventing people from understanding key facts and are willing to resort to pretty much any means to do so. These tactics are perhaps best exemplified by Steve Bannon's infamous of "flood zone with sh*t" disinformation warfare tactics and the new age of "targetcast" political propaganda.  The goal of these and a host of related techniques is to totally discredit both experts and the media, leaving political leaders free to spin whatever fiction they think their constituents will find most attractive. Combating this sort of thing is proving to be extremely difficult at the society-wide level because of narrowcast information channels. At an individual level, things are easier. All one has to do is to understand the game that is being played, discount information coming from those sources, and seek out more reliable sources of information.

Irreducible Uncertainty

Doing all of the above things limits uncertainty by improving our access to the trustworthy information that is available.  In dealing with situations like COVID-19 it does not, however, get us out of having to deal with the substantial elements of risk and uncertainty that remain. There is still an enormous amount that we don't know about this virus – fundamental facts about how it spreads, how it makes us sick, how it can be treated, and how we can become immune. Given the complexity of the global economic system, there are also lots of uncertainties regarding economic impacts and strategies for limiting those impacts. Finally, there are huge uncertainties about how the ways in which the pandemic might threaten the social fabric. In the face of such uncertainties, there are a few principles we can follow to help limit the damage.

Equitable Risk

Whether you are visiting the casino or playing the stock market, it is always been smart to avoid gambling more than you can afford to lose. When dealing with potentially deadly health risks, the same advice applies. When in doubt, it's generally smart to err on the side of caution.  It is also important to remember that we can't reduce risks to zero. We don't know how. And, even if we did, we probably couldn't afford to do it (either as individuals or as a society). 

This fact that risk reduction costs money raises a variety of complex ethical issues. To start with, there are questions about whether healthcare risk reduction is a fundamental right to which everyone is equally entitled. Or, should especially risk-averse or wealthy individuals be allowed to use some of their discretionary funds to increase their personal margin of safety?  Should especially risk-tolerant or poorer individuals be able to save money by accepting greater levels of risk?  Should richer citizens be allowed to pass risks that are rightfully theirs on to other, generally poorer, members of society. (This is what "not in my backyard" conflicts are generally about.) Bottom line, as we think about how to protect ourselves in uncertain and dangerous situations, we ought to think about how we can minimize the threat that we posed to others. 

Risky / Cautious Shifts

Another thing to guard against are well-documented psychological dynamics that alter the way that people and, especially, leaders, think about risky situations. There is the "cautious shift" in which people try to prove their value to the electorate by demonstrating that they will do more than their rivals to minimize risks.   Up to a point, this makes good sense.  However, things can escalate into a kind of bidding war that ratchets up protective measures to the point where enormous amounts of money and effort are spent to achieve insignificant levels of risk reduction. Conversely, there is the "risky shift," where people compete by trying to show that they are braver than their opponent (who is painted as a coward).  With respect to COVID-19, we can find examples of both of these dynamics. We ought to insist on some sort of more sensible middle ground.

Tunnel Vision

Another common mistake is to focus exclusively on protecting ourselves from a few high-profile and much talked-about risks (like COVID-19) while failing to take adequate steps to protect ourselves from the many routine and also very serious risks that we face every day. For example, they are now lots of stories of people so worried about COVID-19 that they fail to seek treatment for serious acute conditions such as heart attacks.  This also applies to interactions between different types of risks—COVID-19 health risks versus shutdown-related economic risks, for example.  Not surprisingly, different individuals and institutions tend overemphasize the types of risks for which they are most directly responsible.  Obviously, we need to think carefully about how best to balance these risks in particular situations.

Delay / Default

Another common and frequently problematic response to uncertainty is to delay decisions about how best to respond until we learn enough to reduce uncertainties to the point where the wisest course of action is clearer. The problem here is that is that decisions aren't really being deferred. Instead, people are making an unconscious decision to pursue the default alternative – the continuation of business-as-usual practices (which could easily be worse than any of the response options under consideration).  That said, it may, in some cases, make sense to delay choices regarding options that are expensive and time-consuming to implement and difficult to reverse should uncertainties be resolved in another direction. 

Flexibility

Finally, I want to highlight what is probably the most important strategy for dealing with uncertainty – flexibility.  It is always the case that uncertainty increases dramatically the further one looks into the future. This means that decisions that lock you into a particular course of action for a long period of time are especially dangerous. It is much better to develop and pursue a series of options each designed for a different contingency. The idea is to be able to quickly switch between options as additional information becomes available. The effectiveness of such a strategy depends, of course, on continual and vigilant monitoring of the environment for changing conditions that would warrant a different response (such as a COVID flareup). It is also important to continue the search for new information that would reduce uncertainties in ways that might make a different option seem more attractive.

In order to maintain flexibility and avoid getting locked into undesirable courses of action, you also need to be willing to admit previous actions may have been mistaken and that leaders who admit mistakes and change course are much better than steadfast leaders who erroneously project an air of infallibility. In other words, it is important to avoid placing decision-makers in a situation where they feel that they have to conceal and distort unfavorable news in order to preserve their position.

We must also resist the temptation to evaluate decision-makers (and ourselves) based on outcomes. Instead, you should judge decision-makers on the basis of the information that they had when they made their decision. To do otherwise risks placing too much confidence in reckless decision-makers who "luck out" and not enough confidence in prudent decision-makers who just weren't so lucky. 

Bottom Line 

While there is a great deal of uncertainty associated with the COVID-19 pandemic (and pretty much any other social problem), there are also many things that we can do to reduce these uncertainties and protect ourselves with respect to our reducible uncertainties.